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As he was speeding towards his 40th birthday, Oakland Ross made a pact with himself that he would come to regret. A journalist, Ross had already lived a life many would envy. A foreign correspondent with an internationally recognized newspaper, his work had taken him to Africa and Latin America, getting to know the countries in which he lived and worked in an intimate way. But as 40 approached, Ross told himself he had to "write and publish a novel or my life would be a failure."
Now 48, Ross -- whether he sees it or not -- has exceeded all of his own expectations. A collection of short stories, Guerrilla Beach, was shortlisted for the 1995 Trillium Award. A work of non-fiction, A Fire on the Mountains: Exploring the Human Spirit from Mexico to Madagascar helped him celebrate both his knowledge of and love for Latin America. Most recently, the publication of The Dark Virgin presented the world with the first installment of what could prove to be a magnum opus. The Dark Virgin is book one of what will be the Night of Songs trilogy: a triptych of novels set in Mexico between the time of conquest and the time of the Revolution that takes in five centuries of Mexico's turbulent history.
While Ross published a novel and so his life is, in fact, not a failure -- the author says that the burden he placed on himself is not one he'd advise. Ross says that when he got word that a publisher was interested in his collection of short stories he "felt this weight lift from my shoulders and realized there had been this grayness for seven years that I didn't even know was there, I'd become so accustomed to it."
With his goal accomplished and his writing life secure, Ross has had time to reflect on the price he's paid for securing his goal. There is, Ross says, "a cost in your personal life. Not every writer does, but most do. You spend a lot of time in a room alone staring at a computer screen and that takes away from your personal relationships. It really does. And maybe it's an excuse, but I think you pay a high personal price. And whether it's worth it or not? Everybody has to answer that question for themselves."
Despite lamentations for a decade lost, Ross is both eloquent and passionate on the subject of writing and on his sometimes elusive muse. "I really think of writing as an exploratory process -- a process of discovery -- rather than a process of declamation. I may have all these passions, but I don't sit down to write about them. I write not in order to say what I think, but in order to find out what I think. Or to find out what I feel. I really feel that writing is a process of discovery and it's through the process of writing that you learn what it is you think and feel and what it is that you have to say."
The epic novel, The Dark Virgin, is set in Mexico in the early 1500s at the time of the conquest. "The title refers to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is the patron saint of Mexico. The apparition of the Dark Virgin was a pivotal moment in Mexican history, a moment when Amerindian traditions and Christian beliefs began to unite." History is important to Ross who, as a journalist, believes that an understanding of what has gone before helps in comprehending the present. Ross found Mexico to be rich ground for a novelist to till. "Granted, [Mexico's history] is often very sad and often extremely bloody and often filled with folly. It's not been a happy history that Mexico has had since the time of the conquest: no one could deny it. But, for better or for worse, it has been what's created contemporary Mexico."
Oakland Ross lives in Toronto where he is a feature writer for The Toronto Star. And where, of course, he is at work on book two in the Night of Songs trilogy.
Linda Richards: The Dark Virgin was an incredibly huge undertaking.
Oakland Ross: With an emphasis on huge. It is. It just kept growing and growing. The Dark Virgin is book one of three. I think the feeling you're supposed to have on completing what is quite a large novel is a feeling of relief and satisfaction that you've done it, but I just went right on to the next. So there's a long way to go before the project is finished.
So all three aren't finished?
No. I've written rough drafts of the other two, but very, very rough. So I'm poking away at the second of the books now. It jumps way ahead in time [from the first book]. It's set in the 1860s. So you could call it a trilogy if you want. You could just call it three books of Mexico. There are things that connect them: there are some connecting devices. The main [one] being that there's a minor character in The Dark Virgin -- Zaachila who is the daughter of the main character, Pitoque. She has a problem with the lateral motility of her eyes, which is actually a genetic defect called Dwayne's Syndrome. And that defect in the other two novels [will] connect them genetically. Obviously, because the next novel jumps 300 years ahead in history, there won't be any of the same characters. And the third novel is set during the time of the Mexican revolution, which begins in 1910.
So Pancho Villa and all that stuff.
Yeah. Though mainly the part of the revolution that was led by Emiliano Zapata. It will focus on that part of the revolution. But everything else will come in to it.
What writers have influenced your work?
In terms of models, there's a wonderful American writer named Madison Smartt Bell who I knew primarily as a short story writer -- he's a wonderful short story writer. There's a wonderful collection of his called Barking Man [and Other Stories]. It's excellent. And he's written a couple of novels, all sort of set in contemporary, urban United States. Then most recently, completely out of left field, he embarked on a project set in Haiti at the time of the slave revolt that led to Haitian independence at the end of the 1700s, beginning of the 1800s. The first of those novels is called All Souls' Rising. It was shortlisted for the National Book Award in, I think, 1997 or 98. The second novel in that series has just come out. It's called A Master of the Crossroads which I've bought but haven't read yet. But certainly All Saints Rising is an exceptionally fine novel and I certainly found it as a model for what I'm doing, more than any other work of historical fiction that I read, I found Madison Smartt Bell is just rich. A fantastic, fantastic writer.
What led to your passion for the Mexico and the periods you write about?
Well, I lived in Mexico for five years when I was a correspondent for the Globe and Mail. And naturally, because it was part of my job, I became familiar with Mexican history and then I certainly knew more about Mexican history than I know now about Canadian history, for example. You can't understand the present unless you understand the past, you know? So if you're covering the present you really do have to understand the past. I explored Mexican history then and it is a phenomenally powerful story. Right through the whole 500 years from the conquest through the present: not to say that it wasn't interesting before the conquest. It is an unbelievably powerful drama filled with extraordinary incidents.
Granted, it's often very sad and often extremely bloody and often filled with folly. It's not been a happy history that Mexico has had since the time of the conquest: no one could deny it. But, for better or for worse, it has been what's created contemporary Mexico. To be able to work with the kind of material that is available through that whole period: certainly never for one instant writing this book -- and that took me three and a half years from beginning to final manuscript -- I had frustrating times and I had discouraged times but I was never, ever bored. I never, ever got tired of the material. And that continues to be true. It's just an extraordinary wealth of amazing incidents and amazing characters. It just never stops.
Was there a lot of research? There must have been, because it seems very seamless.
Well, thanks. But historical fiction is really tough that way. If you're writing a novel set in contemporary times there's just so much that you know. You know the diction that people use. You know how people dress. You know what people eat. You know, broadly speaking, what they believe and what they don't believe. You know what kinds of transportation they use. All these things, you just know. But when you're writing, in this case, a novel set 500 years ago, none of these things do you know. What do people wear? What do they eat? What is their daily routine? How do they furnish their houses? What do they believe? Do they eat with their hands? If so, are there rules of etiquette that involve how they eat with their hands? But that was part of the challenge, it was kind of like an oil painting. I'd have to go through again and add that layer of detail, whether it was dress, modes of conveyance, food and add it in another draft.
So you suggest -- and tell me if I've got this right -- that you wrote a kind of scaled down version and then went back through it and enriched it?
Well, that's what happened. It's funny because I tend to be a very fat writer. I tend to write too long and then have to cut back: which I think is most people's tendency. It's more rare that someone is a lean writer where they write and then have to fatten up after the first draft. But this book was just the opposite. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger as I worked on it because I had to add more subplots, more detail, more incidents, more characters and then enlarge those characters. So it was really a process of starting with something thin and then piling on more weight.
The way you work sounds like a real additive process.
Yeah: this was. It was just adding on, adding on. And I think that -- should I even admit this? I don't know -- novels -- this is my first published novel -- they're a bit like what they say about sausages: if you knew what went into the production of a sausage, you'd never eat one. Well, if you knew what went into the production of a novel, you'd never read one. [Laughs] There'd be problem areas in the book. Or a whole section: oh, this is a problem area. Sometimes I'd be going back in and fixing [whole sections]. And I felt like somebody renovating a house. I'd just walk in there with a sledgehammer and I'd say: Take down that support beam! Take down that drywall! You know: Knock out that wiring! And I would just go in there and be smashing the thing apart and then slowly trying to rebuild and repair it and then what happens, if it's a good novel, is everything connects. Once you make changes to any part of the novel you have to work upstream and work downstream because that has impact on everything that came before and came later. You've made those changes and now you've got to work through the whole novel all over again to resolve or reconcile everything else. The better the novel is the more difficult that task is because everything in a good novel is connected. So I'm implying that this is a good novel. [Laughs]
What I did learn in working on this novel is that it really is true what they say: that 90 per cent of writing is rewriting. I've mainly written short stories before and that's not really true with short stories. Short stories are kind of like running a 100 meter dash, which is really a work of genius. You get it right or you don't get it at all. And a short story either explodes into life and stays and burns for the short period that it has to burn or it doesn't. And if it doesn't there's really nothing you can do to make it have life, just as running a 100 meter dash: you're either perfect or essentially it doesn't even matter.
But if you're running a marathon you're going to have good times, bad times, you're going to have discouraged times, you're going to have periods that are really ugly. The whole thing isn't really a thing of such perfect beauty as a short story is. It's not a lesser thing, by any means. But it's a different thing.
I really found, certainly with this book, that it was rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. There's a great quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. He said: Inside the chest of every novelist there beats the heart of a peasant. And what does a peasant do? A peasant goes out to the fields, day after day after day to rake and to hoe and to hope that this year there will be a harvest. And some years there are and some years there aren't. And the peasant essentially has no control over that. It's the gods that control that, whether it rains or not. But the peasant has to have his dumb blind faith: that if he just goes back to the fields day after day after day then something good will come. The novelist has to do the same thing. He goes back to the computer day after day after day to tinker and write and work on it and you really feel you have no control over this process. But you just have faith that if you remain true to it in the end you will have a harvest. And sometimes you do, sometimes you don't.
It's not easy to write a novel. When I was freelancing I also taught creative writing in Toronto. The students would come to me and say: Tell me honestly, do I have what it takes to be a successful writer of fiction? Should I make sacrifices? Should I maybe give up my job? Should I devote myself to this? And my answer, invariably, would be: Don't even think about it. Forget about it. My thinking being that if they had the will and the sticktoitveness and just the dumb perseverance that it takes to write a novel, they'll do it no matter what I say. And what I say isn't going to make any difference. But if they don't have that -- it takes this unbelievably strong will -- if they don't have it, then they're not going to succeed. And if they've got doubts, then their will really isn't strong enough and they probably shouldn't try. Or they shouldn't give up their day job, anyway. They shouldn't put their life in jeopardy to do it because it isn't a question of talent, because talent isn't that rare. It's much more a question of openness to learning and perseverance. The will to carry on despite the discouragement. Despite the fact that you think you're jeopardizing the lives of your children not to mention your marriage. I think our greatest writers are probably driving taxis ... who have talent we can't even dream of, but they don't have the psychological wherewithal to bring that talent to fruition. It's not just a question of talent. It's a whole range of personality qualities that you acquire.
You sound like you're describing an entrepreneur almost. People who just have that blind faith and...
And are willing to take risks.
And you talk about perseverance, but -- on the whole -- creative people tend to be filled with doubts about their abilities. About their talent.
Mostly. There are probably exceptions but, yeah. That's right. And you do, you go through... well, on this book there were two periods that I can remember where I was ready to give up. I said: No way. This book is dead. I can't do it. But I came through both of those periods and it's funny because Iris Tupholme, the editor, she says now: I never had the slightest doubt. I knew. I had faith all the way through. And she certainly acted that way. Because I would go to her and say: Iris, I'm sorry. And she would say: No, don't you worry. It's going to get done. Boy, you need that in an editor. They have more confidence in you than you have in yourself.
Were you writing fulltime the whole time you were working on The Dark Virgin?
Yeah. Up until the very end. Because I had actually [gotten] a very large advance. So that was enough for me to live on frugally for three years and then I ran into the wall which was: Oops, no more money. What I had always been was a journalist, so I got a wonderful arrangement at The Toronto Star and they've been great. I work there on a part-time basis as a feature writer.
The problem with living from hand to mouth -- which I did for many years: freelance writing, doing some teaching, giving the talk in exchange for some money, whatever you could do -- is that it's hard to earn your living that way, but it's even harder to do what you need to do. If you're writing fiction, you want to free up time to write.
You live in Toronto?
I do now live in Toronto. In the 1990s I lived in Toronto, in the 1980s I lived abroad. Mostly Latin America and then came back to Canada and lived in Montreal for two years and then I went to Africa for three years. I made a big mistake. Somewhere in there I wrote a novel, because it had always been my ambition to write a novel. It was set in Guatemala. I wrote the first draft and it was terrible. I wrote the second draft, it was probably worse. Then I put it aside and that's when I got sent to Montreal and then to Africa. But I carried around a sense of failure, not because the novel hadn't been good, but because I'd just walked away from it and didn't stick at it. I decided that I would do my tour in Africa, which was fantastic, but that when it was over I was going to quit everything and just devote myself to writing fiction because I had to write and publish a novel or my life would be a failure. Don't ever do that! Don't ever define your life as a failure. Or set up a series of criteria that make your life a failure. Because if you don't achieve what it was that you were trying to achieve then you've created a box that you can't get out of. You've predefined your life as a failure and you can't get out of it. I went for seven years from the time I finished that failed novel, which was in 1986 until 1993. I came back in 1990 and wrote another novel which was worse than the first one. Set in Chile, that one. So I started writing short fiction and started taking courses and learning and writing short stories. I did start to publish them and then in 1993 I sent out a manuscript of short stories all set in Latin America called Guerrilla Beach. There were several small, literary publishers who wanted it but the first one was Cormorant Books. I remember going home in September of 1993 and there was a message on my telephone answering machine from Jan Geddes [then publisher of Cormorant Books] saying that she wanted to buy the book. I felt this weight lift from my shoulders and realized there had been this grayness for seven years that I didn't even know was there, I'd become so accustomed to it. And it was gone because I had accomplished this goal. I'd defined it as I had to publish a novel, but when [I'd published] a collection of short stories I said: No. I don't draw a distinction. That's as big an accomplishment -- which it is -- as writing and publishing a novel. So I felt: I don't have to worry about that anymore.
"My life is not a failure."
[Nodding] My life is not a failure, that's right. I can do what I want now. I don't have to feel trapped by this anymore. But, you know, if I had failed, I'd be a street person now.
I would, I would. Probably. I don't even think that's an exaggeration. I did a stupid thing, which was creating a box for myself.
Or maybe it was the right thing. What if you hadn't done that? You might be driving a taxi in Toronto or something.
And what's wrong with that? And -- well, I won't go into this -- but there's no question that you pay a cost in your personal life. Not every writer does, but most do. You spend a lot of time in a room alone staring at a computer screen and that takes away from your personal relationships. It really does. And maybe it's an excuse, but I think you pay a high personal price. And whether it's worth it or not? Everybody has to answer that question for themselves. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't do it. If I had these 10 years to live over again I wouldn't do it.
It surprises me to hear you say that because you've created an ongoing work.
Yeah. And I've come out of it and I'm lucky as well that I worked hard and all that but if I had those 10 years to relive I wouldn't live them the way I did.
I'm looking forward to asking you about that in five years. Maybe you'll have a different perspective.
It may be true. I don't know. Maybe I take that answer back. because there's no point in trying to relive the past. You made the choices that you made and they seemed to be the best choices at the time.
How old are you?
That's interesting. Because it was when you were approaching 40 that you made that pact with yourself.
It's all [about] trying to make sense of your life. Trying to come up with a narrative that makes sense to you. And always, my ambition was to be a writer of fiction and I hadn't done it. I hadn't tried hard enough. So I felt that I had to do that. I had to do that. And maybe I was right. At the time, probably I was. And now... well, I said that if I had it to live again, I wouldn't do it, but that's not true. I mean, obviously because I don't have my life to live over again it's irrelevant. But you do pay a high price to devote yourself to work that much. But it was what I wanted to, what I needed to do, at the time and here I am. I still love it and I'll continue.
I'm not a risk-taking person. I'm essentially a careful person, in my life. And when I say that to people, they say: What? I gave up a career as a journalist and as a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail. I threw it away and started to write short stories. [Laughs] And they say: What an incredibly risky thing that was to do. Which, in fact, is true. Which goes completely against my nature, because I do tend to be a cautious person. And I think: Well, yeah. It must have been a very, very powerful need and I must have wanted it a lot to take that kind of risk and to stick at it really for way longer than I thought, because I didn't think it was going to be that hard. I thought: I'm a journalist, I'll just write a novel. But I found out that I was not remotely prepared. It took me a decade.
I think people do mystify the process a little bit and I think it may be important to demystify it. I mean, writing is a thing you can learn to do: writing fiction. In fact it's a mistake to sit around waiting for inspiration or to view it as some sort of apparently magical process. There's a magic to it. I play tennis. And I think everything I learned about writing, I learned playing tennis. The analogies are endless. You have these magical days on the tennis court when you are inspired. You can do things that actually you don't know how to do and when you can't do anything wrong. But those days come along once every two years and that's not real. To base your sense of yourself as a tennis player on those days is entirely unrealistic, as wonderful as those days are.
The reality of you as a tennis player is grind it out, day after day and you try to find a level of ability that's a little bit better than it was before and that is good enough. That's true of writing as well. You do have those days, which are just gifts from the gods. I mean, you get those sections of a novel and you get those short stories that seem to be handed to you by the gods. But ... you can't base your sense of yourself as a writer on those, because they don't happen often enough. Your sense of yourself as a writer is based on just grinding it out and finding a way to mix your talents with your experience. And that's really what writing is. It's going back to the computer or notebook or typewriter day after day after day and doing the best that you can and getting that level up to a level that's good enough. So your bottom level is good enough, your top level will be way better than that. But you can't hit your top level every day: you won't do it very often and it's a combination of craft and experience and God knows what but it's not inherently different from anything else that's hard to do but that you can learn to do.
And that involves a lot of passion.
Writing does, but I really think of writing as an exploratory process -- a process of discovery -- rather than a process of declamation. I may have all these passions, but I don't sit down to write about them. I write not in order to say what I think, but in order to find out what I think. Or to find out what I feel. I really feel that writing is a process of discovery and it's through the process of writing that you learn what it is you think and feel and what it is that you have to say. So rather than bringing a passion to writing, your passion emerges from writing. At some very, very basic level I think you write because you enjoy playing with words. That's the fundamental thing. Whatever your political beliefs may be or your personal beliefs: if you don't fundamentally take this childlike pleasure in playing with words then you're not going to be a writer, because in the end that's what it's about. It's about the creation of all sorts of things with the building blocks of words. | July 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.